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Brief Version: Believers question whether atheists can have meaning or purpose in life.
It’s based on the double-assumption that there must be a purpose, and that only God can
provide purpose. The short answer is that I make my own meaning in life, though I doubt seriously
whether there is any “big-picture” reason for it all. And that’s okay.
(Full version follows.)
Theists often assume that life without belief in God is meaningless, without purpose, and therefore
empty. I once assumed this too, so I do understand the assertion.
Here’s a sincere, honest inquiry, which was posted by someone I know:
“I don’t understand how people can live without someone like God to live for. Otherwise
what’s your purpose in life?”
First, because I’m a stickler for defining terms before a discussion proceeds too far,
let’s agree on what the words say. I’ve heard the question asked various ways (and
I’ve asked it in various ways). The following are all slightly different questions:
“What’s your purpose in life?”
“What’s the purpose of your life?”
“What’s the purpose of life?”
The first one is asking about my intentions — my overriding goal. The latter two are
asking for the reason — for my life and for life in general. So, let us separate
the questions and answer them individually; it would be confusing to conflate them into one
question and answer them as one.
Reversing The Question
One fair way to respond, I think, is to reverse the questions:
“What is a believer’s purpose in life?”
“What is the purpose of a believer’s life?”
“What is the purpose of life (in general), according to believers?
(For what follows, I focus on Christianity because it’s the belief with which I’m
most familiar, and is the religion of most people with whom I’m likely to converse.)
When I believed in God, I thought the purpose of my life was to serve him. But not all theists
see it quite so narrowly.
When I believed in God, and I did for many years, I thought the purpose of
my life was to serve God. There were really only two overall choices in life — to serve him or to
rebel against him. (Apathy qualified as rebellion in my book.) “Serving God” included
obeying his commandments, praying, trying to be “Christlike”, and (because Jesus
commanded it) telling others about it. These activities gave my life meaning; anything else was a
distraction from it.
But not all theists see it quite so narrowly. Many are content to live mostly secular lives
while the idea of God acts as a safety net or a general guiding principle that underpins life.
In fact, if you ask random theists “What is your purpose in life?” you will receive
a plethora of answers. But they — an overwhelming majority of them — assume there is
a Director on the cosmic stage and that each bit of life plays its assigned part, whether each
person realizes it or not.
The second question (“Why are you here?”) also results in a multitude of answers,
though many of them can be boiled down to: “Because God wanted it.” If you ask me,
this is a cop out. Because in that worldview it’s stipulated that nothing happens
without God wanting it. The question is really: why did God want it? Why did he do it? Why did
he allow you to be conceived and survive until now? “God wanted me to be here” is
just a way of saying “I’m special”, and doesn’t really answer the
God is perfect, you assert; therefore he doesn’t need your companionship, help,
or worship — and Acts 17:25
confirms this. So why did he make you, specifically (or allow you to be conceived/born)?
Do you know? If you say you know, then how do you know?
As for life in general, the Bible does not say why God created it. It
does give a lone reason why he made mankind, and one for why he made women.
He made mankind to to “rule over the
fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over
all the creatures that move along the ground.” He made womankind
because “it is not good for the
man to be alone.” So, he made women to be a companion to men, whom he made to rule over
the animals, which he made for a reason that’s not provided.
says “all things” were created “for him”, but not why. Some cite
Rev. 4:11 (KJV)
as saying all things were created for his pleasure, but
most translations, especially
the modern ones, say by or because of “your will”, indicating (to me) that
“pleasure” was a loose translation at best.
For many Christians, “part of his grand, mysterious plan” is reason enough, based
on passages like Is. 55:9).
why did god create humans to
see other ideas. Many of the resulting pages admit that the Bible doesn’t actually say what
the purpose of life is.
So we find that believers (as a group) often have trouble answering these questions — with
any degree of certainty or consensus. To generalize, let’s say the answers are,
respectively: (1) to serve/worship/obey God, (2) God wanted me here — not sure why, and
(3) God wanted life on Earth — again, not sure why.
If there must be a purpose or reason for life itself, and that purpose must have come
from God, wouldn’t it have been helpful if God had clearly spelled out
what that purpose was? It would have only required one sentence, and could have been stuck anywhere
in the Bible, but perhaps Genesis would have been the best place. “God created life
As Applied To Atheists
Turning the questions back to their original intent — toward nonbelievers — I
can only answer them from my own viewpoint.
Remember, atheism is not a religion. Atheism is simply a
“no” answer to a single question: “Do you believe in God(s)?” Unlike
religions, atheism is not structured, nor bound by rules or organizations. There is no holy book.
Any organizations that exist are social or political groups, not representative of individuals.
So another atheist might respond entirely differently.
The first step is to remove the double-assumption that there must be a purpose/reason, and that
the reason must be provided by a god. Since there is almost certainly not a god, the second
assumption makes no sense. From there, the first assumption fades in importance as well —
why must there be a reason? No matter how badly I desire there to be a reason or
meaning for everything, it doesn’t make that reason exist.
Without The Assumptions
What if life just is? Based on
geological evidence, it looks like the Earth was uninhabitable at some point, and then began to
support tiny bits of life, and then later larger life forms — most of which are now extinct
— until we come to today, when the Earth is teeming with life of all kinds, from bacteria and
tardigrades to redwoods and blue whales.
Does the world suddenly look less interesting if you don’t assume God put all the life there? It
did not become so for me, once I concluded God did not exist. If anything, it
became more fascinating without an easy, pat answer — “God did it” — for every mystery.
Does the world suddenly look less interesting if you don’t assume God put all the life there?
It did not become so for me, once I concluded God did not exist. If anything, it
became more fascinating without an easy, pat answer (“God did it”) for every
Is the universe scarier, thinking that there might not be a reason for it all? It is at
first; at least it was for me. I felt a bit empty —
like I’d just had the breath kicked out of my chest. No Reason? No Purpose? Then what is the
point of being here at all? A comet could strike us tomorrow and all of life would end without any
point whatsoever and no one to remember it.
About the same time I realized I no longer believed in God, I came to several other
realizations. One was that I had never, during all my
years of believing, actually known the purpose of my life or the meaning of life in general. I had
wandered aimlessly. Even when I believed my purpose was to “serve God”, I had never known
any specifics; I had merely guessed — maybe I should be a missionary, or a pastor. Perhaps a
lyricist for an evangelical music group. At different points in my life, I “felt God
calling me” toward each of these.
“For about 2 years now, I have felt the call of God on my life, to minister full-time, in
some way. Since then, I’ve wavered in my opinion of how that ministry will be structured.
At first, I wanted a full-time music ministry... Since then, while keeping the musical vision in
my mind, I’ve mentally wandered into pastoral ministry, youth ministry, evangelist,
missionary, street worker, etc. Somewhere along the line, several months ago, I figured that
to be a full Christian, I would have to be all of these.”
The second realization was that any of those paths, had I followed them, would have been
self-assigned — something I chose for myself — and that the same would be true for
any future purpose to my life. Because God had not said, written, or done anything to tell me
what the purpose should be. In other words, my life purpose is what I choose for myself,
even if I still believed in God.
God didn’t cease to exist when I ceased to believe; it hadn’t existed the whole time.
A third realization, which seems simple but was actually very profound to me, was this:
God didn’t cease to exist when I ceased to believe; it hadn’t existed the whole
time. This meant that life had been without a reason my entire life — during
everyone’s entire life — for all of Time. So, even when I had believed there
must be a purpose for it all but just didn’t know what it was, there actually hadn’t
been, and we had all been just fine.
The Big Picture — Cosmological Time Scale
Without a belief in gods or anything supernatural, there is also no belief in the eternity
of one’s consciousness. (I don’t count the future possibility of copying
one’s mind into a computer; that would be a copy; my current consciousness would
still end.) The planets and stars will last for billions of years, and
even after their eventual destruction their atoms will bounce around the Universe forever after,
but it’s not likely that in the distant future — say, a billion years from now —
our actions today will matter one little bit.
If my entire being, including my consciousness, will turn to dust in a few more decades,
then can any present action matter? My answer is an emphatic yes: it matters
To a theist accustomed to the promise of eternal consciousness, this concept is
incomprehensible. Or, if they can
comprehend it, it’s unacceptable. To a theist becoming an atheist — as I
did over the past few years — it is mind-blowing indeed, but I was forced to either
come to grips with it or ignore it. And I’m not the kind of person who can ignore such a
If my entire being, including my consciousness, will turn to dust in a few more decades, and indeed
my entire planet and solar system will be destroyed by our
in 7 billion (or so) years, then can any present action matter?
My answer is an emphatic yes: it matters to me.
Whether your actions
or mine matter at all in a billion years is a question for someone living a billion years from
now — if anything living then even remembers our species. But I won’t be around then;
I’m here now. It matters to me now that humans behave morally toward each other,
and toward our future generations. It matters to me that I have enough to eat and drink, and that
I have shelter, because the alternatives are painful and surely would shorten the only life I
have. It matters that I find some enjoyment in life, though not at the expense of others. And if
I can’t find enjoyment, or don’t have sustenance or shelter, then it matters that I
at least have hope (some measure of confidence) of acquiring such things in the near future.
If there is a possibility that our species will continue without extinction, then it matters to
me that its future is better — better than other possible futures. So I favor
scientific inquiry and exploration, basic human rights, conservation of resources, and careful
stewardship of the ecosphere. It matters to me because someone in the past worked so that the
present is better for me than it could have been; it just seems fair to pay it forward.
No, there is almost certainly no cosmological reason or purpose for everything, or anything. We
have what we have, and we should make the most of it.
The Purpose Of My Life
From the paradigm of religion, it can be difficult to imagine a life without the
framework — that you’re on the stage without a Director.
From the paradigm of religion, it can be difficult to imagine a life without the framework —
that you’re on the stage without a Director. This
difficulty is part of why it required 25 years for me to let go of my belief in the supernatural. I
didn’t even realize I had always assumed my life must have a purpose — and that
it must be a divinely-ordered purpose. The all-knowing God had planned my life, I thought, or at
least wanted me to participate in his plan.
These two assumptions did not stand up to tough scrutiny, something I discussed on
My Journey page. The fact that I wanted my life to
have a higher purpose did not make it so. But it also didn’t mean I could have no
purpose, no meaning, at all. I could make my own purpose, define my own meaning in life.
And so, ever since this realization, I have been doing exactly that: deciding what the purpose
of my life will be, and working toward that. I only wish I had made it to this stage much
earlier in life.
The fact that current actions and events matter to me — and, I assume, to everyone else now
living — does not mean there is a purpose or a reason, especially one provided
by a higher power. I have come to grips with the
probability that there is not a reason, and that there doesn’t have to be.
This does not make my life empty or unenjoyable. I find personal meaning in all that I do, and I
try to have a reason for most of what I do. I accept the possibility that none of this will matter
a billion years from now, when humanity could very well be extinct or — if not extinct, then
— in some unrecognizable form.
So I make my own purposes — to be a decent husband and father to my wife and children, to
enjoy and create art and beauty, to honestly evaluate myself and consider the daunting questions of
existence. I have determined to be reasonably healthy and careful, to prolong my existence
here; to reduce as much as possible my negative effects on the environment, which my
children will inhabit long after I’m gone; and to make every effort to improve civilization
in every way I can, for the benefit of humans both current and future.
These are admirable purposes to pursue, no matter your belief.